During my freshman year of college, female students were on high alert. A predator had taken advantage of unlocked doors to rape at least two co-eds in their own dorm rooms. Flyers with a composite drawing of the suspect along with warnings and safety reminders were hung up all over campus.
I think the guy was eventually caught, but I honestly don’t remember.
What I do remember is that, for a while, most female students were careful about locking their doors and not walking alone after dark. While those precautions should have been and should continue to be common practice, our fears were somewhat misplaced.
Instead of worrying about a stranger jumping out of the shadows to attack us, we should have been alert to those we already knew.
No one ever taught me that, but I learned the lesson anyway. Unfortunately, I learned it too late.
I was already a college graduate when I was invited to a law school party that started like any other. That didn’t last long.
At other parties, I didn’t fall down after one beer. At other parties, male acquaintances with whom I had absolutely no romantic interest didn’t complain, “that’s not how it was supposed to work” when I talked to other male party goers. And at other parties, I didn’t leave with huge chunks of time missing even though very little alcohol was consumed.
I will never know exactly what happened that night. I’ve gotten bits and pieces from friends but, to be honest, I never really wanted to know. For a long time, I was ashamed and believed that I had done something wrong.
Only years later, when I learned about Rohypnol and other date rape drugs, did I piece together what probably happened. And even then, I had no proof that anything happened at all.
Statistics show that such an incident isn’t uncommon. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that about 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone the victims knows. Half of all victims do not define the incident as rape because ” there is no obvious physical injury and alcohol was involved.” The NIJ also reports that “approximately 27.5% of college women reported experiences that met the legal criteria for rape.”
What they usually don’t do is report these incidents as crimes.
That’s because rape often doesn’t look like the crime many of us were taught to avoid.
Rape is not just a crime of violent sex offenders who stalk women in dark alleys. It is not just a crime of deranged individuals who can’t control their violent urges and express them through rape. Instead, it is often a crime committed by men or boys with great reputations who, for whatever reason, are seeking to meet their needs by controlling women. And because these men are often respected professionals, athletes or students, they often get away with their behavior.
A former emergency room nurse told me a story about caring for a young woman who had been raped on campus by a student athlete. The university offered to pay the victim’s tuition if she didn’t press charges or go public. She never pursued the crime, but she never went back to school either.
A social worker tells the story of a woman who drank too much and was picked up by a police officer, who, instead of giving her a ticket, chose to rape her instead. She never pressed charges for obvious reasons.
This week, a colleague showed me the photo of a young woman holding a sign that says ” I need feminism because my university teaches how to avoid getting raped rather than don’t rape.” I posted the photo on Facebook, and it immediately got reaction, including those who wanted to emphasize that young women should be taught to take safety precautions.
I couldn’t agree more. But I can’t say that putting all the responsibility on women is fair or appropriate. Universities, and society as a whole, must send a constant and consistent message about the definition of rape and that it is a crime regardless of the circumstances and people involved.
That’s not happening. Instead, the message seems to be that these things sometimes happen when alcohol is involved or when women lead a man on. The message also seems to be that some men are just too important to hold accountable.
And so, I agree with the young woman in the photo.
There will always be individuals who push the limits. The rest of us have the responsibility to push back.